Tag: family

Faulty Pockets

For the last 12 years I’ve carried four stones in my pocket.

It started after Emma died, when a woman, whose last name is Love, gave us each a clear sort of stone with an angel inside.  I put mine in my pocket and started carrying it around with me.  I liked the idea that  Emma was with me everyday.

Nancy and I went to visit friends of ours that summer.  Their family has a cabin on Lake Michigan.  It’s a peaceful place, and they thought being by the water would help us heal.  One day we took a road trip up the coast of that great lake.  We made a stop in a town called Petoskey.  It turns out the town is famous for  a particular kind of rock that you can find along the shore.  The rocks have a beautiful honeycomb pattern in their veins.  It’s common to see bunches of people strolling the shoreline, heads down, picking up rocks, wetting them, and then examining closely to check for the signature pattern.  

That day, I had incredible luck. I not only found a Petoskey stone, but I found one that was in the shape of a heart.  It reminded me of my Valentine. I put my Petoskey heart into my pocket alongside the angel.  It was nice to think of Nancy and Emma together in my pocket all day long.

Not long after that, I received a stone owl as a gift.  It was small, about the size of a marble, but it had that knowing look, that alert look that I love about owls.  In a book I read, an author was writing about a mathematician who had the same last name as mine, but the author used the word “owl” for that mathematician, saying that’s what our name meant.  I had always heard that our name meant meadow.  Since my first name sometimes translates as “rock,” I always thought my name meant, a rock in the meadow, but I liked that maybe our name meant owl.    I had always thought of my daughter Sarah as an owl.  She had a way of seeing past or through any of the froth and bubbles of the world.  She saw clearly and had gained wisdom beyond her years –actually, beyond my years. I put the owl in my  pocket.  It was nice to have Sarah and her wisdom with me all day.

Around that same time, we had all started going to a support group at a place called The Den for Grieving Kids.  Sarah had felt that none of her friends, try as they might, could understand what it was  like to lose a close family member.  They didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting better faster.  It had been several months.  She realized that most of them hadn’t lost a grandparent, much less a sibling.  We thought that being in a group with other kids who had experienced loss would help her feel more connected or understood.  The group was good for her. It turned out that the parent group was also so good for me and for Nancy.

The Den had several rituals.  They opened each meeting by having everyone say the name of the person they had lost. “My name is Peter, and my daughter Emma died.” It was painful at first, but it felt important.  We closed every session by singing “Lean on Me,” promising to be there for the other grieving people.

They had other rituals.  When someone started at the Den, while everyone stood in a circle, a child presented each newcomer with a rock – a rough rock to hold and keep.  They said it stood for us — at that time — rough, sharp-edged, and broken.  They assured us that over time, our rock would become smoother, softer, polished by time and by touch.  Over time, we too would soften, our jagged scars gradually rounding. At one of our first sessions, we witnessed a final ritual. A woman who had been in our grieving parent group announced that tonight would be her last session at The Den.  She had been coming for four years, but now it was time. She had leaned on The Den long enough.  A child from across the circle approached her shyly and handed her a smooth stone.  Her grief was softer now, more rounded.  Watching the ritual, I thought about that expanse of time, four years. It felt so long. But I also felt a sliver of hope. 

I now had four stones, and they were my family — an angel for Emma, a heart for Nancy, an owl for Sarah, and a rough rock for me.  I carried them faithfully for 12 years. Every night I set them on my bedside table. Every morning I put them back in my pocket.

Then this summer something happened. 

One day in July I was emptying my pocket as I changed to go for a bike ride.  I noticed that my owl was missing.  I texted Nancy to look for it at her school, since I’d been there that morning.  She didn’t find it.  I searched all over my house, in other pockets, under the bed, between couch cushions, in the laundry, in my car.  No owl.  I blamed the new shorts I’d been wearing.  They had very shallow pockets.  Whenever I sat down, the contents of my pockets came perilously close to the rim.  That must have been when the owl got away.

It bothered me, partly because I can’t stand losing things, but mostly because that owl stood for Sarah, and she was about to head off to grad school, moving out of our house, perhaps for the last time.

Then another thing happened.  Nancy, Sarah, and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a week of hiking.  This was our happy place, where we’d spent many summers going to camp or working at camp.  On our first full day, a Sunday, we headed out early to beat the heat and the weekend crowds.  We had decided to hike up Roostercomb Mountain.  I put my three rocks, the angel, the Petoskey heart and the less-rough stone in the zipper pocket of my favorite hiking shorts.  The pocket was on the outside of my left pant leg.  The rocks rattled with every step, bouncing against my thigh.  I didn’t mind. I liked the idea that I was carrying them with me every step of the climb.

Roostercomb is a small but beautiful mountain.  We like it as a first-day hike because it eases us into the week.  We had the mountain to ourselves on this early morning, and we made it back to our cabin by noon.  As I changed out of my sweaty hiking clothes, I unzipped the side pocket to retrieve my stones.  I reached inside.  The pocket was empty.  I checked the pocket on the other side.  Maybe I’d put them on my right.  I reached in.  Nothing there.  I searched the floor and under the bed.  Maybe they’d fallen out.  Nope.  I rushed out to the car and checked the driver’s seat.  No sign of the stones.  

I trudged back to the cabin and checked the pants again, this time more carefully.  These pockets were deep and had a zipper.  How could the stones be gone?  As I reached further, my fingers discovered the problem.  A hole.  Not a big one, but big enough for an angel, a heart, and a less-rough rock to slip away.

“They must have fallen out on the trail,” I sighed to Nancy and Sarah.

“Do you want to go back and look for them?” Sarah asked.

“No,” I sighed.  “That would be a pitiful way to hike, looking down at the ground the whole way up.”

Later, I thought about how my family had never done that last day ritual at The Den.  Sarah had gotten busy with school, sports, and choirs, and stopped attending.  Nancy and I had continued for several more years, gradually transitioning from those with the freshest grief to those who tried to comfort the newcomers.  Eventually, though, our attendance became spotty, and we finally just stopped making the drive.  Maybe, I thought now, my faulty pockets were trying to tell me something.  Maybe it was time.  Maybe the stones weren’t so much my family as they were my grief, and maybe now they were smooth enough to slip away.  

Grief doesn’t ever really fade away, but maybe it doesn’t have to rattle in your pocket with your every step.   

Just the same, Sarah handed me a stone angel before she left for school last week.  The next morning Nancy presented me with the angel that she’d been given by the woman whose last name is Love.  

I’ll keep them on my bedside table.

The Voice

I pulled into my driveway.  The sky was clear and the late afternoon air was still crisp, the way September should always feel.  It had been a busy day at school.  I was glad to be home.  I pulled into the garage and walked into the house.  It appeared that no one was home.  As I climbed the stairs to the kitchen, though, I found my father seated at one end of the dining room table.  Dinner was served, so I sat down and we dug in.  We had a nice chat, the first one that he could actually participate in for as long as I could remember.  His hearing seemed much better than it had been in our last conversation.  

We polished off the burgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob, wiped our chins in perfect sync, and sat back in our chairs. We toted our things to the kitchen.  It all seemed so ordinary.  Dad had asked me about Nancy and Sarah and wondered where Farley was.  I told him Nancy had been working hard at Horizons, Sarah was working hard at P.A. school, and come to think of it, I had no idea where Farley was.   I had asked him about his mom and dad and brother and whether he’d been able to track down Emma. “Not yet,” he said, “but I’ll find her.”

“Good,” I’d said to him. “We miss her.”

I started loading the dishes in the dishwasher.  I thought it was a bit odd that he was letting me do it.  Maybe it was because he had made dinner.  I couldn’t recall him ever cooking before.  I also couldn’t recall him letting someone else load the dishwasher before.  He’d always been very particular about it.  It was one of his special skills, and it was hard to teach.  This time he let me do it all by myself.  Well, I was 60 now, a big boy, at least in the dishwasher loading sense, so I guess I was old enough to handle this task at my own house.

I told Dad I had some work to do, and headed upstairs…to my old childhood bedroom, where I found my laptop at the desk where my electric typewriter had sat 40 years ago.  I opened the lid and began browsing for materials to share with my class tomorrow morning.  I found several intriguing videos.  The narration on one was uncanny.  It fit perfectly (almost identically) with the articles I had just copied that afternoon on the Battle of Saratoga.  In fact, the video was so intriguing that I found myself clicking on others in the series.  In each one, I seemed to know all the words before the narrator finished his sentences.  I must have lost track of time, because when I finally emerged from the video rabbit hotel, I had a strange feeling that I had overstayed.  Would they charge me for that?

I glanced at my watch.  7:10, it said.   That seemed to jiggle a memory loose.  I had somewhere I needed to be tonight, but I couldn’t remember where.  Oh, that’s right.  Tonight is  Back to School Night.  I stood up and headed to the bathroom.  It’s a good idea to brush your teeth before you meet a roomful of parents.  I wondered aloud, “What time does Back to School Night begin?”

I pulled a sheet of paper out of my back pocket.  It was completely out of focus.  I pulled it closer to my face and then away from my face.  Still blurry.  I held it under the bathroom light.  That was better. I scanned the schedule. “Oh, it starts at 7:00.   That’s funny, I think my watch said it was 7:10 already.  WAIT, WHAT?!  It’s 7:10 and there are parents in my classroom right now?  And they’re wondering where I am?”

My heart was suddenly galloping.  I decided not to brush my teeth.  I considered throwing up. That would be more appropriate.  Had I ever done this before? Just forgotten to show up for Back to School Night?  I couldn’t remember.  Maybe.

Suddenly a vision formed.  It was Mrs. F. who had already emailed me about 30 times this year.  She was standing in the main office, hands waving wildly as she shouted at the secretary.  “Has ANYONE seen Mr. von Euler?  He hasn’t shown up for his presentation.  That seems VERY unprofessional to me.”  Spit flew from her mouth as she emphasized the P in Presentation.  I wondered if she had brushed her teeth.

A large man stood off to the side.  He was more succinct.  “You’re fired.”

Back in my bathroom, panic thoughts rushed through my head.  Should I call the school?  Should I tell them I lost track of time?  Should I tell them about the uncanny parallels between the text of the video narration and those articles that I had copied?  Should I tell them about the unexpected visit from my recently-deceased father?  Should I say that I was caught in traffic and I’d be right there?   But I was in my childhood home.  How far was that from school?  I think about five hours… or forty years.  That wouldn’t work.  Very few parents would wait five hours for a teacher’s presentation.  The desks and chairs are very small.  And wait.  Where is Nancy?!  Where is Farley?!

I sat bolt upright in bed. The room was dark.  I looked over at the clock, my heart still pounding.  4:21.  Oh, thank God.  I looked to my right.  Nancy was fast asleep.  I shook my head.  “Like clockwork,” I thought, “the calendar flips to August and the anxiety nightmares begin.  This’ll go on all month.”

Then, as I slowly regained consciousness, another thought came into focus.  “Wait a second.  I retired on July 1.”

I flopped back down, nestled my head on my pillow, closed my eyes and sighed, trying to slow my breathing.  “I never have to do another Back to School Night presentation in my life.”

“Well, not in your waking life,” said a voice in my head.  “Sweet dreams.”